Movies, Reviews

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (no spoilers!)

Man, this thing is dusty. Hello again. Let’s just move on, shall we?

Last week, I went to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with my boyfriend and several of his friends. I’ll just come out here and admit straight-up that its main attraction for me was the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch is in it. Because. Benedict Cumberbatch.

BUT, that is not what I want to talk about. In fact, there are a lot of things I could say about this film, but I’m not going to. Instead, what I want to talk about is how TTSS has colored my opinions on screen adaptations of novels. Which is oddly appropriate, considering that one of my last posts was also about adaptations.

This story actually starts with my boyfriend. He’s one of those people who somehow manages to be well-read about everything. I do not know how he does it, but given just about any conversation topic, he could link you to several blog posts, an academic article or two and sometimes even a hilarious yet thoughtful comic on the subject. He’s like a walking citation machine. He first expressed an interest in seeing TTSS several months before it was actually released, having heard about it because he is obsessed with WWII & the Cold War, and that’s just the kind of thing he hears about. I promised that we would see it with very little intention of actually doing so, like I always do when he’s being nerdy about something I’m not all that interested in (sorry, babe :P), but then…Cumberbatch. Ahem.

Anyway, as with all other things, Drew did his homework before we went to see this movie, and he had come to the following conclusion: TTSS is better if you know exactly what is going to happen. Not better in the sense that the book is better than the movie (although I kind of want to read it now), but in the sense that it’s actually hard to follow and thus enjoy the story if you don’t already know what’s going to happen. Because of this, he insisted that we read a summary of the story beforehand, including character names and the basic plot trajectory. The three people we saw the movie with did not do this. Guess who liked the movie and who didn’t?

TTSS went on to win both “Outstanding British Film” and “Adapted Screenplay” at the BAFTAs (yes, I follow British award shows; shut up), and is nominated for the Oscars in the latter category as well. This begs the question: is it really a good adaptation if you have to already know the story to properly appreciate it? Isn’t that sort of cheating?

My answer is a somewhat confused yes-and-no. TTSS has the disadvantage of being both a spy movie, which intentionally tries to confuse the audience, and a British film, which means that it’s rather less bang and more sizzle, as compared to American cinema. It’s like James Bond, but without the promise of guns, explosions and hot women to keep viewers engaged (don’t lie–you know that’s the only reason you see Bond movies). That means that a viewer who doesn’t know exactly what they’re getting into is going to get bored, miss something key, and then spend the rest of the movie in a state of constant confusion and frustration. It would seem that, as an adaptation, it fails to stand on its own, and will only appeal to those who have read the book already.

But if you do know what you’re getting into, even if you don’t know the whole plot (which, admittedly, I did), I think the movie is totally capable of standing on its own. You just have to pay very, very close attention. That means you can’t drift in and out, eating popcorn and joking with your friends and whatnot, because you’ll miss it and then it’s all over. Which, I think, is a refreshing change from the type of cinema you usually get–the kind you could start watching halfway through and find the thread. In short, it’s a book in movie form, which makes it possibly the truest adaptation I’ve ever seen. But still not something I would recommend to the wider public.

So I summarize thus: go see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but do it with your eyes wide open and paying attention like you’ve never paid attention in a theater before, and you will enjoy it. And then be glad that most movie “adaptations” take the concept with a grain of salt, because if all adaptations translated this directly, they would be practically unwatchable.

And don’t see it with people like me and my friends, because two of us had phones go off, and another brought individually wrapped candy with very crinkly paper. Oops.

Guiltily yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?” -Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

P.S. On the subject of British cinema: Eddie Izzard on British vs. American Cinema

pg. 97 of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

11 thoughts on “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (no spoilers!)”

  1. That was a very smart analysis, especially the observation about the film resembling a book with the equal concentrated demand of one’s attention.

      1. Well it wasn’t absolutely necessary to have read the book or a synopsis beforehand. Seeing the trailer helped. I think the film does require the viewer to pay strict attention and if you do you are rewarded for it – which is what you’re saying.

        If you have already read the book – and therefore know who the double agent is – then you’re more apt to watch the film with the book in mind. Measuring the film against the book. But not having the knowledge before hand – does make it more of challenge. You said that too.

        In any event, I liked the style of your review, and enjoyed it. Check out my review if you have a chance.


        1. Definitely not a movie to watch when you’re half asleep. I think the biggest thing is that you have to pay super close attention to the characters, who can be a bit of a challenge to differentiate from a purely visual standpoint. Keeping them straight is the key issue. I’m interested to see how the viewing is changed if you have read the book. I’ll have to get my hands on it, then see the film again. :)

  2. You continue to be very good at writing about this subject.

    I continue to lament on an hourly basis (with loud wails of anguish and beating of breast) the amount of film which assumes all viewers are morons. I’m increasingly aware, though, that there’s plenty of nuanced, clever film which doesn’t — it’s just that it’s rarely given a ticket to the (American OR British) big-promotional-campaign mainstream (which I guess makes commercial sense, although some huge-success exceptions — 2001: A Space Odyssey, say, or The Good the Bad and the Ugly — suggest risks are worth taking too*) Sounds like TTSS may have slipped the net, in which case — fair play to it! It’s definitely climbed up the to-watch list as a result of this review (:

    If you fancy a film which REALLY demands you watch closely, probably with a notebook, I’d highly recommend Primer (

    *Wikied my examples, they were both slow starters which slowly became huge successes, which figures.

    1. Primer is awesome. I don’t know that it requires a notebook to watch, but you definitely have to be paying attention. That’s another film that Drew got all excited and nerdy about, so I ended up watching it with him. This happens on a fairly regular basis. XD

      Not so sure I’d put 2001: A Space Odyssey on a list of nuanced, clever film, though. I mean, it’s not nuanced and clever so much as slow and strange. There are sequences of brilliance–the opening segment, and the HAL section–but mostly it’s just random and hard to follow. Although I’ve heard that the film is quite a bit better if you’ve read the book, which I haven’t, so perhaps I should hold my tongue on that one.

      I haven’t seen the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I didn’t realize it was intellectual. I always sort of assumed it was a standard, mindless action/western, based on its trailer (I made the same mistake with Fight Club initially). Should I watch it, then?

  3. It’s definitely not intellectual in the tightly plotted, intricate sense you’re talking about with TTSS or Primer, no. And I don’t claim that 2001 is either. I mean more that they’re both films of extraordinary high quality, which reward intelligent viewing. 2001 I find extremely clever and nuanced, but a lot of the nuance comes from aesthetics, pacing and (to me) exquisite control of tone; the subtle creepiness of HAL’s burgeoning humanity, the slow, empty gravitas of deep space, and the amazing emotive rush of the epiphanic end sequence.

    As for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, 99% of the people I know who love it are male, so it’s definitely one that founders at the testosterone divide. It IS hyper-violent and extremely macho, but again I think it does things with setting, length and cinematography which a Hollywoodesque movie would have no time for, but which provide a far bigger pay-off for an audience with alert artistic sensibilities. I may have been a bit unclear about this; neither one is a film of mindfuck plot twists.

    I’d recommend watching A Fistful of Dollars, which is a bit more immediate, and then if you like the aesthetic of that, devour the whole trilogy. The score is absolutely delightful, too.

    1. I say ‘Hollywoodesque’ to include British (Australian, Irish…) mainstream film that panders to that general sensibility as well. Not being racist is so DIFFICULT :p

      1. I think you mean “Nationalist,” perhaps? :P How dare Hollywood be so mainstream…and successful at the box office…XD I never can decide which side of the broad-appeal-vs-artistic-merit argument I’m on. Ideally, both?

        2001 is pretty clearly an art film that somehow managed to break into mainstream culture. It’s not that it’s not tightly plotted so much as there isn’t much of a plot at all, and the aesthetic is pretty much all you have to go on. Which is fine, if you’re in to that sort of thing. Aside from the two aforementioned sequences, I’ve never been much of a fan, but then I tend to prefer traditional, linear narratives. I’m just unimaginative like that. :P To be fair, I also haven’t seen it in about ten years. I might enjoy it more now than I did when I was 12.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s